February 16, 2022

Johnson Property Donated to D&R Greenway

By Anne Levin

Just outside Hopewell Borough, a turn off of Route 518 leads to an idyllic 800-acre property with sweeping views of the Hopewell Valley. It is Hillside Farm, longtime home to the late philanthropist Betty Wold Johnson, who counted land conservation among her biggest priorities.

Thanks to a gift to Princeton-based D&R Greenway Land Trust, the farm — forests, meadows, wildlife habitat, and agricultural land with a tributary stream to the Stony Brook — has been added to the nonprofit’s more than 22,000 acres of land preserved in New Jersey. Johnson’s sons Robert Wood Johnson, former United States ambassador to the United Kingdom and owner of the New York Jets football team; and Christopher Wold Johnson, Jets co-owner and businessman, have donated the property in honor of their mother, who died at age 99 on May 5, 2020.

“We are pleased and proud to donate this special property in honor of our mother,” the two brothers are quoted in a joint statement. “She loved Hillside Farm as much as she loved the Hopewell area, and she would be thrilled that the land will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.”

Linda Mead, D&R Greenway’s executive director, said the brothers first reached out to the organization last summer. “I almost fell off my chair,” she said. “They wanted to know, what would D&R Greenway do with the property if they gave it to us? They wanted to do something fitting with who their mother was.”

A few months went by. Around Thanksgiving, another call came. “I wasn’t sure if they were still considering it,” said Mead. “But they decided to donate the property to us. We worked diligently through the holidays to pull everything together, and the board voted to accept the gift, which we received on December 30.”

Betty Wold Johnson was instrumental in securing and naming D&R Greenway Land Trust’s headquarters, the Johnson Education Center off of Rosedale Road, on the former estate of her father-in-law General Robert Wood Johnson. She was actively involved in the nonprofit for many years.

“We are inspired by the family’s confidence in D&R Greenway as we announce this historic land gift from Betty’s family,” said Peter Dawson, chair of D&R Greenway’s board of trustees, in the release. “In choosing our organization as the keeper of this legacy, the family is honoring Betty Wold Johnson’s commitment to preserving land.”

Hillside Farm is larger in size than Hopewell Borough. While the property is not yet open to the public, D&R Greenway will hold its annual fundraising gala there this spring. When it does open, which Mead projects as sometime next year, people will be able to follow hiking trails, spot wildlife, and participate in other activities to be determined. “It’s the breadth of the property that is so amazing,” said Mead. “You look in every direction and all you see is open space.”

The farm “contributes to the region’s inclusion in the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area, so designated for its Revolutionary War-era historic significance,” reads the release. “Contiguous with two other D&R Greenway preserves, its Sourlands Ecosystem Preserve and popular Cedar Ridge Preserve, the linkage of protected land secures migratory corridors and habitat. On the opposite side of town, and visible from the gifted property, is the organization’s St. Michaels Farm Preserve that Betty Wold Johnson helped protect.”

The future of Johnson’s distinctive house, barns, and other buildings on the property is to be determined. “We’re just starting to evaluate what to do with them,” said Mead. “We could sell them. Or there might be someone out there who will make it possible for us to use them and maintain them, maybe as a retreat center or something related to conservation.”

Mead fondly recalls sitting with Johnson at her kitchen table, going over maps of which land D&R Greenway should preserve. She remembers riding around the farm with Johnson on her Gator [tractor], which she was driving, in her nineties.

“She would say, ‘Look, there’s the owl habitat,’ or point out the invasive plants. And she said to me, ‘The number one thing you can do is preserve more land.’”